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City Takes Aim at Illegal Guns

Council approves a law requiring owners to report lost or stolen weapons. Some use the excuse to sell arms to criminals, police say.

October 19, 2006|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

In an attempt to prevent gun sales to criminals, the Los Angeles City Council approved an ordinance Wednesday that requires residents report the loss or theft of their guns to police within 48 hours.

The ordinance, which goes into effect next month, also requires anyone who had a gun stolen or lost in the last five years to report the loss. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's press office said he supports the measure and would allow it to become law.

Residents who fail to report a loss of their weapon face a misdemeanor charge and up to one year in jail. The ordinance applies to all guns, including rifles and shotguns.

The council voted 12 to 0 to approve the ordinance. The only formal opposition came last month from the California Pistol and Rifle Assn. -- an affiliate of the National Rifle Assn. -- which said in a letter to the council that the law would not have the intended effect.

"The ordinance will frustrate police investigations," wrote C.D. Michel, an attorney for the group.

Michel also said owners whose guns are recovered at crime scenes and later contacted by police probably will refuse to cooperate on the advice of their attorneys -- since they may be prosecuted for not reporting their gun lost or stolen.

The law's intent, according to its backers, is to help prevent "kitchen" or "straw" sales of guns to criminals. In such sales a person legally buys the gun and then sells it to someone who isn't permitted to buy or own a firearm. If the gun is used in a crime, the original purchaser pleads ignorance, saying the gun was lost or stolen.

"This is not about the garden variety mom-and-pop gun owner who for some reason unbeknownst to us wakes up one morning and discovers that their gun isn't there," said Councilman Jack Weiss, the chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee. "This is about the hard-core trafficking of guns."

Los Angeles Police Department officials said they recovered 6,600 illegally owned guns in 2005 and 4,800 so far this year. One of their goals is to use the new law to prosecute people who repeatedly have their "lost" guns used in crimes.

Lt. Steven A. Nielsen, of the gang and operations support division, said that investigators routinely can find the buyer of a gun used in a crime but then have no other recourse if that person says the gun was lost.

"A lot of our kitchen dealers sell guns out the back door, and they do it for a living, and they do it one gun at a time," Nielsen said. "This type of ordinance allows us to put these people out of business -- someone who continually loses their gun or reports it as stolen is someone you want to look at."

Similar laws have in recent years been enacted in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, among others.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill, SB 59, last month. In his veto message to legislators, Schwarzenegger wrote that he thought the bill might punish legitimate gun owners who themselves were the victim of a crime -- the theft of their guns.

He also did not like a provision that would have enabled local governments to pass tougher versions of the law, which Schwarzenegger wrote could "erode the state's ability to effectively regulate handguns statewide."

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